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Wednesday, December 9, 2015

NEW STORY COLLECTION by Michael Cunningham: "A Wild Swan: And Other Tales"

Author:  Michael Cunningham 
Illustrator:  Yuko Shimizu
Title:  A Wild Swan: And Other Tales 
Plot Type:  A new twist on a selection of traditional fairy tales 
Publisher and Titles:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux (11/2015)

From the website of Michael Cunningham: 
Michael Cunningham is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the novels A Home at the End of the World, Flesh and Blood, The Hours (winner of the Pen/Faulkner Award & Pulitzer Prize), The Snow Queen, Specimen Days, and By Nightfall, as well as the nonfiction book, Land's End: A Walk in Provincetown. He is a Senior Lecturer at Yale and lives in New York.

From the website of Yuko Shimizu: 
Yuko Shimizu is a Japanese illustrator based in New York City and instructor at School of Visual Arts. Newsweek Japan has chosen Yuko as one of “100 Japanese People The World Respects” in 2009. Her first self-titled monograph was released world-wide from German publisher Gestalten in 2011. The first childrens book Barbed Wire Baseball (written by Marissa Moss) came out from Abrams in April, 2013.

You may have seen her work on The Gap T-shirts, Pepsi cans, VISA billboards, Microsoft and Target ads, as well as on the book covers of Penguin, Scholastic, DC Comics, and on the pages of NY Times, Time, Rolling Stone, New Yorker and in many other publications over last ten years.

But illustration is actually Yuko’s second career. Although art has always been her passion, she had initially chosen a more practical path of studying advertising and marketing at Waseda University and took a job in corporate PR in Tokyo. It never quite made her happy. At age 22, she was in mid-life crisis.

Yuko ended up working the corporate job for 11 years, so she could figure out what she really wanted in life, as well as to save up just enough to play a biggest gamble of her life: She moved to New York City in 1999, where she briefly spent her childhood, to study art for the first time. Yuko graduated with MFA from SVA’s Illustration as Visual Essay Program in 2003 and has been illustrating since. She has also been teaching the next generation of talents at the alma mater.

She works at her studio in midtown Manhattan, and fulfills her passion of world travel by giving lectures and workshops around the world and various cities in the US. She has not gotten into mid-life crisis since she became an artist.

Please do not mix her up with another Yuko Shimizu. This Yuko did NOT create Hello Kitty. 

In the NY Times Review of "A Wild Swan," Christopher Benfey describes Shimzu's dramatic, adults-only illustrations as portraying "a style that recalls Aubrey Beardsley with a touch of Maurice Sendak."

     A poisoned apple and a monkey's paw with the power to change fate; a girl whose extraordinarily long hair causes catastrophe; a man with one human arm and one swan's wing; and a house deep in the forest, constructed of gumdrops and gingerbread, vanilla frosting and boiled sugar. In A Wild Swan and Other Tales, the people and the talismans of lands far, far away―the mythic figures of our childhoods and the source of so much of our wonder―are transformed by Michael Cunningham into stories of sublime revelation. 

Here are the moments that our fairy tales forgot or deliberately concealed: the years after a spell is broken, the rapturous instant of a miracle unexpectedly realized, or the fate of a prince only half cured of a curse. The Beast stands ahead of you in line at the convenience store, buying smokes and a Slim Jim, his devouring smile aimed at the cashier. A malformed little man with a knack for minor acts of wizardry goes to disastrous lengths to procure a child. A loutish and lazy Jack prefers living in his mother's basement to getting a job, until the day he trades a cow for a handful of magic beans.

     Reimagined by one of the most gifted storytellers of his generation, and exquisitely illustrated by Yuko Shimizu, rarely have our bedtime stories been this dark, this perverse, or this true.

     In an interview on, Cunningham discusses his childhood reaction to fairy tales: "I remember that, as a child, I had an ever-so-slightly irritating habit of asking 'What happened next?' after my mother or father had finished reading me a story. 'And they lived happily ever after' struck me as insufficient, and a bit of a cop-out. Happy all the time? Forever?" Unsatisfied with the lack of detail in the endings, Cunningham always wanted to know exactly what happened after the "happily ever after."

     Cunningham’s interpretations of these traditional fairy tales vary from prequels to sequels to twisted retellings. In each story, he thoughtfully explores the complexity of kinship—the stresses and emotional minefields that exist between husbands and wives, mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, brothers and sisters. In many of the stories, he defends the outcasts of the world, while showing the dark sides of the usual fairy tale heroes and heroines. Somehow, the new twists he applies to these old tales feel natural, as if they should have always been there.

     In his introduction (titled "Dis. Enchantment"), Cunningham wants us to "Please ask yourself. If you could cast a spell on the ludicrously handsome athlete and the lingerie model he loves, or on the wedded movie stars whose combined DNA is likely to produce children of another species entirely…would you?" If you would, you'll enjoy these re-imagined fairy tales in which the usual heroes and heroines are not nice people. Instead, Cunningham defends, and tells the story of, the different onesthe man with a wing for an arm, a man with one leg, a not-too-bright giant, a lonely gnome, an equally lonely witch. They may do some bad things, but with all the best intentions. 

     Below are brief summaries of the stories, all of which are excellent―full of dark humor, deep emotions, personal challenges, and―frequently―hope for the future of these fragile and faulty characters. I have provided links to original versions of the fairy tales on which Cunningham bases his upside-down/inside-out versions. Of course, you don't have to read the originals to appreciate Cunningham's stories, but I believe that it makes for a richer reading experience.

"A Wild Swan" 

Based on Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm's "The Twelve Brothers" (1857) and "The Six Swans" (1857) and on William Tegg's "The Wild Swans" (from The Child's Own Book, 1861) 

     In this terrific "what happens next" story, Cunningham follows the twelfth princely brotherthe unlucky one whose curse is almost, but not completely, broken. This poor guy winds up with a mostly human body, but...his right arm remains a swan's wing because his sister was unable to complete his magical cloak, the object that broke the curse. As he grows older, the swan prince develops a love-hate relationship with his wing. "He lived with his wing as another man might live with a dog adopted from the pound: sweet-tempered, but neurotic and untrainable. He loved his wing, helplessly. He also found it exasperating, adorable, irritating, wearying, heartbreaking." 

     At one humorous point, he wonders whether he can use the wing to attract women: "Yeah, right, sweetheart, it's a wing. I'm part angel, but trust me, the rest is pure devil." But no, the only women he attracts are "drawn to some Leda fantasy or, worse, hoped her love could bring him back his arm." Cunningham uses both humor and pathos as he combines the fantastical elements of the fairy tale with the needs of the atypical amongst us. So we leave the twelfth brother "in one of the bars on the city's outer edges, the ones that cater to people who were only partly cured of their curses, or not cured at all...In such bars, a man with a single swan wing is considered lucky."

from "Crazy Old Lady"
"Crazy Old Lady" 
Based on Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm's "Hansel and Gretel" (1857) 

     This is a "what came before" story. Why in the world did that witch build a house made of candy deep in the woods? In this story, as in several others, Cunningham writes in the intimate second-person voice, as if the character is muttering her story to herself: "You ran, as your mother put it, with a fast crowd. You threw off your schoolgirl plaids early, lied your way to adulthood in taverns three towns away, encouraged the men there…in the dimness of alleys.…You went through three marriages….You embarked on a career of harshly jovial sluttishness." 

     Yes, the lady lived a rough life on the mean streets, and now she's old and looking for a place to settle down in a sweet little cottage where, perhaps, some charming visitors will happen by and alleviate her crippling loneliness.  Those visitors turn out to be a pair of self-absorbed, amoral millennials, "pierced and tattooed and…ravenous" and worldly. "The girl sucked seductively (with the cartoonish lewdness of girls taught by porn rather than experience) on a scarlet lollipop." The boy asks, "Hey, Grandma, what's up?" just before he ransacks the place. (And you just know that he pronounces it "Wassup.") When the witch realizes what's in store for her, it's almost a relief, "unanticipated but right."

Based on William Tegg's "Jack and the Bean-Stalk" (from The Child's Own Book, 1861) 

     Jack is another millennial slacker―a boy who feels entitled to anything and everything he desires. "This is not a smart boy we're talking about. This is not a kid who can be trusted to remember to take his mother to her chemo appointment, or to close the windows when it rains." Each time Jack climbs the beanstalk, he and his mother climb up a step or two on the economic ladder. On the second trip, "he's no longer dressed in the cheap lounge lizard outfit…He's all Marc Jacobs now." 

     The best addition to the story, though, is the exploration of the relationship between the dim-witted giant and his long-suffering wife. In one hilarious  scene, the wife assures her husband that no, it's not the blood of an Englishman that he smells, but merely a new kind of ox that she's cooked for lunch. 
Giant: "I know what ox smells like. I know what the blood of an Englishman smells like." 
Wife: "Well this is a new kind of ox. It's flavored…You can also get Tears of a Princess Ox. You can get Wicked Queen Envy Ox."
     It's like a dialogue between Edith and Archie Bunker (from the classic TV show All in the Family). At this point, Cunningham says, "Really? Here we move, briefly, into farce. There's nowhere else for us to go." This story is one of my favorites in the book. It's the funniest of them all, but it actually ends in a poignant scene told from the point of view of the talking harp that Jack steals on his final foray up the beanstalk.

from "Poisoned"
Based on Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm's "Little Snow White" (1857) 

     Years after Snow White's hero rescues her from her glass coffin, she and her hero-now-husband are having one of those almost-arguments that are common among long-married, slightly unhappy couples who yearn for the strong emotional connections that they used to have. The husband says, "You wanted to last night." And she responds, "And tonight, I don't think I want to." Are they talking about some type of creepy sex game? Or is it something else?

     Then they begin to argue about his penchant for telling humiliating apple jokes. Things just keep getting better and better (or worse and worse, if you are Snow and her husband) until the big reveal at the very end when we learn what's really going on. A great story!

from "Monkey's Paw"
"A Monkey's Paw" 
Based on William W. Jacobs' "The Monkey's Paw" (1902) 

     So…what would happen if Mr. and Mrs. White used only two of the three wishes granted by the magical monkey's paw? The action happens pretty much like the original story, right up until that terrible knock on the door. (Click on the link above if you're not familiar with the story.) 

     By the end, all three―the monstrous son, the bored wife, and the dissatisfied husband―can think of nothing else but that third wish and that gruesome, withered paw and how it could change their lives, each in a different way. "The Whites, all three of them, know exactly where the monkey's paw resides―on the top shelf of the cupboard, beside the cracked mixing bowl. They know, they always know, all of them know, it has one more with to grant." Cunningham stops the story here, but I desperately wanted him to keep going―to tell us who reached for it first! 

"Little Man" 
Based on Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm's "Rumpelstiltskin" (1857) 

     A 200-year-old gnome desperately wants a child, but "Having a child is not...anything like ordering a pizza. All the more so if you're a malformed, dwarfish man" who lives alone in the middle of the forest in a house carved into a tree. When the gnome assists a young girl in spinning straw into gold, she promises him her first-born, and suddenly, that wished-for child becomes a possibility. But beautiful young queens don't give away their first-born to anyone, certainly not to a "twisted and stub-footed man…with a chin as long as a turnip." This gnome is not an evil man; he just wants a child. So he poses a challenge, which―unfortunately for him―she wins. 

     Cunningham's twist in this tale is to take it a bit further along in time so that we see what happens in the gnome's life after his catastrophic floor-stomping tears him in two. In a cunning bit of irony, Cunningham never reveals the gnome's name to the reader.

"Steadfast: Tin" 
Based on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Brave Tin Soldier" (1838) 

     Cunningham takes the primary element of the fairy talethe one-legged manand places him in a modern marriage. He meets his future wife in college, where she is the first woman "who hasn't treated his amputation [after a car accident] as if it were no big deal; the first who doesn't need to evade his sorrow and his anger." But as their marriage matures, he realizes that her avoidance of sentimentality makes her cold and cruel. She, in turn, is "surprised by how quickly his carelessly incandescent beauty relaxes into the grinning, regular-guy appeal of a car salesman." (He actually is a car salesman.)

     To solidify the connection between fiction and reality, the man reads Andersen's fairy tale to his daughter, who really can't see the point of it: "What's the big deal, about being different? You make it sound like some kind of prize." As the years roll on, the couple survives a terrible fiery accident (another connection with the fairy tale), and the man realizes that his life has been filled with happy endings. Of all of the stories, this was the one that gave me the least amount of enjoymenttoo subtle for me, perhaps.

Based on Jeanne Marie LePrince de Beaumont's "Beauty and the Beast" (1783) and Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm's "The Singing, Springing Lark" (1857) 

     This is definitely not the Disney version of the "Beauty and the Beast" story. When, due to unforeseen circumstances, Beautyone of three sistersis forced to move into a castle with the beast, the two of them don't communicate well at all. He eventually confesses that "he's been subject to some fantasy about love's power, but really, what had he been thinking...He'd been duped…by stories he'd heard about girls who loved misshapen and appalling creatures." Beauty doesn't know what to say. She "could not find a way to tell him that, had he been less mannerly, had he offered her a more potent aspect of threat, it might have worked." Apparently she likes bad boys!

     The bare bones of the story are similar to the traditional tale, right up until the point where the beast changes into a prince after Beauty promises to marry him. Then comes Cunningham's twistentirely unexpected and circling back to the first lines of the story, which describe the usual beasts that ordinary girls meet in the course of their lives. It's a great (and sinister) ending that turns this into a shivery horror story. 

"Her Hair" 
Based on Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm's "Rapunzel" (1857) 

     Here's another "what happened next" story in which we follow along with the prince who tried to save Rapunzel from her witchy captor, only to have his eyes poked out when fell headfirst out of the tower into the thornbushes. Since then, a year has passed and the prince has been wandering the countryside in search of his ladylove, to no avail. "There is, as he'd learned, a surprisingly fine line between a prince on a quest and an addled, eyeless wanderer who has nothing more useful to offer than that single, incomprehensible word"Rapunzel.

     When he finally finds her, they go off to…what? A happy ending? Perhaps. But what's the deal with that very long skein of braided hair that Rapunzel keeps hidden by their bedside?

"Ever After" 
     This appears to be an original story. It has a close thematic connection to "Steadfast: Tin" in that both encompass the ups and downs of long-term marriage between people with very different personalities. In both unlikely pairings, each spouse appears to be attracted by his or her partner's imperfections. The happy endings come eventually, but only after years and years of arguments and reconciliations, passion and boredom, love and hate, fear andfinallycontentment. 

Click HERE to read "A Wild Swan," which was published in the New York Times Magazine "Culture Issue" on October 8, 2015.

Click HERE to listen to Michael Cunningham reading "A Wild Swan" (The sound quality is not great because it was recorded with low-tech equipment at a live performance.)

Click HERE to read "Little Man," which was published in the New Yorker magazine on August 10, 2015. This URL also includes a link to an audio reading of this story by the author.

Click HERE to listen to an NPR interview with the author. That interview includes his reading of a few paragraphs from the book's introduction.

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